As COVID-19 cases creep up again across the country, federal officials and epidemiologists say they’re worried we could hit another tipping point, leading to a fourth significant surge of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
“We’re skating on a knife’s edge right now,” said Nicholas Reich, a biostatistician at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Average daily reported cases are up 10% compared to a week earlier, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows, with more than 30 million COVID-19 cases reported since early last year. Hospitalizations and deaths, which usually lag cases by a few weeks, have inched upward as well, after a decline and plateau that began in early January.
Reich and others say they expect that the immunity from natural infections plus the successful rollout of vaccines, which are now reaching nearly 3 million people a day, will help moderate this surge.
But Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a White House briefing with media Monday that she’s anxious about what the next few weeks could bring.
“Right now I’m scared,” she said in what she described as an off-script moment of candor.
The vaccine rollout is giving people hope and the spring weather is making everyone even more restless, she acknowledged, but it’s too soon for Americans to let down their guard, return to travel and stop using the precautions – such as mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing – that are known to be protective.
She said she was speaking not just as CDC director, but as a wife, daughter, mother, and doctor.
“I know what it’s like as a physician to stand in that patient room – gowned, gloved, masked, shielded – and to be the last person to touch someone else’s loved one because their loved one couldn’t be there,” she said. “And I know what it’s like to pull up to your hospital every day and see the extra morgue sitting outside.”
A race against COVID-19 variants
President Joe Biden reiterated Walensky’s sentiments in a news conference Monday afternoon and called on governors and mayors to continue or renew COVID-19 restrictions like mask mandates.
“The war against COVID-19 is far from won. This is deadly serious,” he said. “We could still see a setback in the vaccination program. And most importantly, if we let our guard down now, we could see a virus getting worse, not better.”
Although roughly 30% of American adults have been vaccinated so far, only 16% are fully protected, and many more remain vulnerable.
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“We have to give more shots in April than we did in March, because we’re in the life-and-death-race for the virus that is spreading quickly with cases rising again,” Biden said. “New variants are spreading. And, sadly, some of the reckless behavior we’ve seen on television over the past few weeks means that more new cases are to come in the weeks ahead.”
New variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are changing the fight, said Eric Feigl-Ding an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.
The vaccines are designed to combat – and are very effective against – the virus that circulated in the U.S. last year.
But as new variants that originated in the U.K., South Africa, Brazil and even New York take over, some are making the virus more contagious – which makes careful mask-wearing even more important – and some are making the vaccines less protective, he said.
A surge of more infectious variants now could reach people before they’ve had a chance to be vaccinated, Feigl-Ding said. One variant originally identified in Brazil, is 2- to 2.5-times more transmissible; another seen in South Africa, may be able to re-infect people who were infected only a few months ago.
Still, he’s hopeful that the fast rollout of vaccines will be able to control the spread.
“I think the fourth wave is upon us,” he said, “but I think the vaccine will hold it back.”
‘So tantalizingly close to being … safer’
Someday soon, vaccinations and lower case counts will allow Americans to resume traveling, socializing in groups and many other things, Walensky said. But not yet.
“I’m asking you to just hold on a little longer, to get vaccinated when you can so that all of those people that we all love will still be here when this pandemic ends,” she said.
Walensky did not specify how much longer she thinks people need to remain cautious.
Reich said he thinks just another few weeks could do it.
Unlike the surge of a year ago when few people had ever seen COVID-19, at least 30 million Americans – and by some estimates as many as three times more – have been infected with the virus and built up at least some protection against it.
Vaccination is expected to be even more protective than natural immunity and to prevent nearly all hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the the CDC and now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative aimed at preventing epidemics and heart disease.
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Although he sees the next month or two as problematic, Frieden said people don’t need to put their entire lives on hold. They should feel free to go outside and go to stores – masked up. People enjoying a beach day aren’t a problem; it’s the bars they go to afterward where the virus gets transmitted, he said.
But to really beat this pandemic, people should get vaccinated as soon as possible, continue to limit their travel and minimize the number of people they share indoor air with for a few more months, he said.
“What’s so frustrating about this is that we’re so tantalizingly close to being so much safer,” he said. “By summer, it’s going to be so much better. By fall we will be at the new reality unless some horrible variant takes over – I can’t guarantee that won’t happen – but like three months, folks. Just keep a lid on it for three months and we can prevent a lot of deaths.”
Contact Karen Weintraub at [email protected]
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